The government front bench is dominated by in- creasingly grumpy men who look older with every passing day. That is why Ruth Kelly is important. It matters that she is 36 and a mother of four, not for conservative-conventional "how-does-she-cope" reasons, but because she has a life. An intriguing life it may be - more of that later - but a life none the less.
At Labour's spring conference on 11-13 February, its last set-piece gathering before the likely announcement of the election, the new Education Secretary will make two appearances, one of them an interactive session with young people, answering their questions via e-mail, text and telephone as well as in person. Before that she will address a special women's session.
She wants to talk to the faithful about "how we increase opportunities across the range, how there should be no cap on potential, how nobody is left behind". Sure, but nobody would say the opposite, would they? The emphasis in education policy in Labour's first term, she continues, was improving academic standards, particularly at primary level. The second term was about more teachers and support staff in schools. "What we've got to do now in our third term is to move on to talk about social mobility, widening aspiration and shaping the education system round the needs of the individual pupil rather than around institutions."
Kelly provides an insight into the government's major announcement on education for the 14-19 age range, due later this month when she responds to the report by the former chief inspector of schools Sir Mike Tomlinson. She has already made clear that she does not agree with him, or with the current chief inspector, David Bell, that GCSEs and A-levels should be replaced by a four-level diploma system. "We need to build on what's good in the system. I am certain that the GCSE brand and the A-level brand will exist and will be respected, and that a lot of kids will be doing them in the normal way."
What about the continued talk of these exams being devalued? That is "rubbish". The independent curriculum authority has investigated this time and again, she says, and concluded that the exams are "just as tough as they used to be. There is an argument that, just because more people get them, therefore they're somehow not as hard: they've been dumbed down. It's not an argument I have any truck with. There are more kids capable of achieving decent GCSEs and A-levels than currently achieve them, and it is part of my job to make sure that more people make the grade." Does that mean the standard of education is better now than it has ever been? "The teaching is better. The learning environment is better. We've got more schools" and investment over recent years, she concludes, is reaping rewards.
This is a rosier picture than some would paint, but Kelly adds: "We have had a historic weakness in this country - which is undervaluing vocational education and gearing our whole system towards the academic. The staying-on rate post-16 compares very unfavourably with other OECD countries. Britain is unique in undervaluing these skills in the way it does."
Addressing this problem will be central to her response to Tomlinson. "What we've got to do is change the culture so that people think it not only right but actually really good to continue learning after the age of 16, but then continue to acquire skills later on at work as well." She wants schools and other institutions to put the same emphasis on vocational as on academic education. Does that mean they should have the same value, I wonder? "It depends on what you mean by value. They're certainly not the same, but it's all about making sure everyone can achieve their potential." Non-academic skills have a value in their own right that has not been properly recognised or encouraged, she says.
She puts it in more practical terms. "It's about the child being able to say: 'That school would serve me best teaching me that subject, but to get the right vocational skills I need to travel to the CFE [college of further education] one day a week, and because I learn better in the workplace then it would be good to have one day a week in the workplace as well.'"
Is this the advent of the roving pupil? She smiles an affirmation. The point of these changes is to allow older kids to hop between institutions; to belong to one, but not to receive all their education in that one. She explains: "I don't think every school will be able to offer the full range of opportunities necessary. In the future I think co-operation will become not only the norm, it will probably be the only way of delivering a decent all-round education for all pupils."
These "networks" of schools and colleges would by September 2007 be assigned a budget by the local education authority. They would work out individual areas of competence within them and distribute the money accordingly. "Schools have specialisms, but to deliver for their pupils they will have to operate as part of a network," Kelly says.
Where are we in the debate about comprehensives, bog-standard or not, and post-comprehensives? "We have to get schools to operate as part of a network to deliver a fully comprehensive education," she replies, restoring to the word its original meaning of all-encompassing.
All these labels are politically charged. The Department for Education and Skills, I am told, is struggling with the language. Kelly is happy to use the verb "to choose", less so the noun "choice". The jargon in Whitehall is "personalisation", but she is reluctant to use it. What about the pupil as consumer? "You can label what you like," she replies. She would rather talk of "putting the pupil at the heart of the education system, recognising the individual needs of the pupil knowing that every pupil is different, and allowing the system to respond. We've never managed to achieve it."
Talking of labels, what about all this "Opus Dei stuff", I ask. Did I really use the word "stuff"? I check back, and realise I did, possibly out of awkwardness. I have known Kelly for quite some time, and had no inkling of her links to this ultra-Catholic cult and its supposedly sinister practices, brought to the public's attention by Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code. Her private beliefs are surely up to her, but it does seem legitimate to find out the extent to which they permeate her politics. She agrees with that: "People are rightly interested in how it's possible to have a person with faith at the centre of politics."
Is it correct that she has made clear to Tony Blair that her views on abortion and other medical-ethics issues would prevent her from taking any Health Department jobs? "It's been written, but it's wrong." So she had never - ? "No. I've never been offered it, John, and if I had been offered it I wouldn't have said no." Did she talk to the PM about her religious convictions when accepting the education job? "I had a long conversation with him about all sorts of things, including what sort of perspective I bring to the job." That sounds to me like a "yes".
Kelly says she is no different from other ministers in abiding by collective responsibility. Once a decision is taken, they all have to defend it. So does she leave her religion just inside the door of No 10, like others have to deposit their mobile phones, or will she argue her particular religious beliefs around the cabinet table when ethical questions arise? "All politicians argue on the basis of their priorities," she replies, cryptically, before adding that hers are expanding opportunity. In one area, her religion could soon collide with policy. A recent Ofsted report bemoaned the low level of sex education in schools, leading to calls for it to become compulsory. Would Kelly stand in the way of that? "No," she says.
What is it about our political process that requires ministers, especially new ones, to demonstrate perpetual motion or, to use that awful word, radicalism? I ask Kelly whether she might not make her mark by leaving things as they are, allowing teachers to get on with the job. She frowns and dismisses that idea as "perplexing".
Kelly is determined to leave her mark on her department, but acknowledges that the big media-driven announcements and initiatives have alienated the public and deterred Labour voters from coming back into the fold. She promises to do politics differently, but, unlike the pronouncements of others, hers for the moment can be taken at face value. Having her kids at state schools in east London helps. "The more local you go, the more people can relate to you," she says. "You have to talk about what matters." For example, parents want to know why their children are being served burgers for the third time in a week. "If you don't get lunchtime right, it's really hard to get the rest of the day right."
With that in mind, Kelly talks about plans to improve school meals, with health inspectors and experts coming in to offer training to catering staff, and to check on nutrition. Could the burger be at the heart of the election battle?